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For decades, no matter what else happened in D.C., one fact remained constant: Most Washingtonians were black. Postwar transportation policies (highways for all!) and housing practices (redlining for some!) enticed whites to suburbs everywhere, but the District’s racial shift happened quickest, thanks to somewhat colorblind federal government hiring and the ongoing Great Migration of southern blacks into cities. In the 1960 census, D.C.’s white population had fallen by 33 percent, giving the city its first black majority. The most recent census was a mirror image: The white population increased by 31 percent in ten years, leaving a black population of barely 50 percent. By sometime in 2011, odds were, “Chocolate City” would be history.
Or would it? Every story riffing on the Parliament song treated the end of D.C.’s black majority as a milestone. In reality, though, the statistical shift was decades in the making—and, in the grand scheme of things, probably not that significant. D.C.’s black population actually peaked in 1970, two years after the riots, at 71 percent. By 1990, the city was 65 percent black; by 2000, just 60 percent. Looking back, the Washington Post’s coverage of the 1980 census could suit this year’s results without much tweaking: “Inner-city neighborhoods where young, affluent, mostly white, so-called urban pioneers have displaced the poor and assumed an active political role are likely to play an increasingly important part in city politics.”
In any vibrant city, demographics change fast. But a region’s character—its soul, if you will—changes slowly. The cultural and civic institutions black D.C. built over five decades aren’t going away, especially with most of the departed black residents living in nearby “Ward 9,” Prince George’s County. As Marc Fisher pointed out in April, black influence on D.C.’s daily business is a lot like the Irish influence in Boston, though neither group has a majority in either city anymore. Besides, even if the 2010 census trends continue in 2020, the District still wouldn’t be majority white. The demographic soundtrack, in other words, still calls for George Clinton.
The flip side of D.C. proper’s demographic changes is the death of the notion that the ‘burbs are lily-white Ozzie and Harriet enclaves. Montgomery County, long one of the nation’s wealthiest jurisdictions, is now majority-minority; residents speak 140-plus languages. Prince George’s County has long been the destination for African-Americans who don’t want to live in D.C. Latino and Asian populations have flocked to Virginia’s Annandale, Herndon, and Centreville.
No one who’s driven around the area recently needed the census to tell you that, though. Like an army, demography marches on its stomach. One single Wheaton strip mall features a kosher grocery, a little shop selling Taiwan-style roasts, and a pho place whose customers are often mostly Central American. Inner-ring suburbs and farther-flung exurbs alike are dotted with pupuserias, Ethiopian restaurants, Korean grocery stores, and Western Union outposts that advertise in several different alphabets. Because D.C.’s real estate prices are way too high for huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the region’s suburbs now house our melting pot.